Study Guide

Oedipa Maas in The Crying of Lot 49

By Thomas Pynchon

Oedipa Maas

Desperate Housewife

Oedipa ain't just about making apple pies and wearing frilly aprons—but people at the time of The Crying of Lot 49's publication were kind of shocked that a housewife was at the center of such an incredibly messed-up and experimental novel.

Seriously, those were different times. In 1966, Richard Poirier wrote in The New York Times that Oedipa Maas was a limited character, "unable to bear the weight of this rhetoric." Other reviewers jumped onboard, and called Oedipa lightweight: a simple housewife confronted with a task far too large for her limited consciousness. Yup. That's some Mad Men-era sexism right there.

The reviewers were comfortable enough in the beginning of the book when Oedipa was only "mixing the twilight's whiskey sours against the arrival of her husband, Wendell ("Mucho") Maas" (1.2). But when Oedipa catches a whiff of the Tristero conspiracy and begins to speculate on the nature of America, the reviewers decided that she was—ahem—out of her depth. Jerks.

With time (and a lot of help from feminist literary critics), the character of Oedipa has been validated. Early reviewers now look super-crazy-sexist in hindsight. They do have one teensy little point: in her confrontation with the Tristero, Oedipa is out of her depth. But here's a question: Who wouldn't be?

Answer: no one, that's who.

By making an ordinary California housewife the heroine of his novel, Pynchon was going strongly against the norm. Even if Oedipa isn't exactly Sherlock Holmes, she's one of the most curious and resourceful characters in the book. By comparison, the dudes around her—from Mucho to Metzger to Hilarius—are all utterly useless. Though the men are in positions of competence, most of them turn out to be sexually perverse, insane, or just bland and generally clueless.

Typecast and Trapped

Basically, Oedipa is forced to play against type. As executor of Inverarity's estate, she takes on an active role for which she is woefully unprepared (again—the only people that would actually be prepared for this type of role are lawyers of either gender). Sure, there are times in the novel when Oedipa falls back into traditional feminine roles. When she goes to see Mr. Thoth, she tries to act "granddaughterly" (4.41). When she first meets Genghis Cohen, she feels "motherly" (4.67). More often, Oedipa has to function as a sexual object; almost every male character in the novel wants to get in her pants. Throughout the novel, we see Oedipa taking the traditional feminine roles with which she is familiar and attempting to fit them to entirely new situations.

One thing to notice is that even as Oedipa gets out of the house and into the conspiracy, she continues to feel like super unhappy housewife. Oedipa is stuck in a loveless marriage, and she is not very surprised when she finds out that her affair with Metzger means nothing to her hubby. She also feels trapped: claustrophobic and helpless. Early in the novel, she looks at the Remedios Varo painting, and begins to cry because she imagines that her trip to Mexico with Inverarity is nothing but a failed escape attempt.

As the novel continues, she feels more and more enclosed by the Tristero conspiracy (or Hoax!?), and she desperately reaches out to the Inamorati Anonymous member hoping that someone will tell her what is happening. It is super ironic that the only man she can look to for help is a member of an organization opposed to the very idea of love.

In short, the woman at the heart of Pynchon's novel is a typical housewife… but Pynchon forces the reader to rethink what exactly a typical housewife is. As we read, we learn that Oedipa is helpless, but clever; trapped, but curious; unprepared, but resourceful; confused, but reflective and intelligent; mistreated, but significantly tougher than the men in her life.

In short, she's as well suited to face the Tristero as anyone might expect to be.

The Detective

No, she's no Sherlock. But that's kind of the point.

This novel is all about a nutso conspiracy, and, true to a typical conspiracy novel or film, the main character is forced to function as a detective. We expect Oedipa to uncover the clues around her one by one, follow the twists and turns, and wait until it all makes sense.

But this ain't your granddaddy's detective story. Pynchon has placed Oedipa at the center of a plot that is kind of a parody of the typical detective story. Like any detective, Oedipa follows the clues around her, from muted post-horns to Thoth telling her that his grandfather was attacked by men in black posing as Native Americans. The clues hint at some greater coherence… but as the plot proceeds, all that happens is that Oedipa is overwhelmed by clues that refuse to come together. It's a most mysterious mystery: one where the more questions you ask, the more mysterious things become.

When Oedipa is first asked to execute Inverarity's will, she feels:

[…] exposed, finessed, put down. She had never executed a will in her life, didn't know where to begin, didn't know how to tell the law firm in L.A. that she didn't know where to begin. (1.6)

The first time she goes to see her family lawyer Roseman, he encourages her to be actively involved, but she wants him to take care of everything. It is only some vague desire to be helpful—to prove herself useful—that causes her to drive down and see Metzger in San Narciso in the first place. And she is suspicious (with good reason!) as soon as she meets him.

When Metzger reveals that he was a childhood actor and says that his movie is on television, Oedipa thinks "it's all part of a plot, an elaborate, seduction, plot" (2.31). In short, Oedipa is a healthy skeptic, but this tendency to expect conspiracy will be blown out of all proportion once she begins to see hints of the Tristero.

Toward the end of the novel, Oedipa begins to suspect that Inverarity is playing an elaborate trick on her or that perhaps she is losing her mind. Yet she can't help but feel that the Tristero is "so labyrinthine that it must have meaning beyond just a practical joke" (6.116). But, in many ways, the world in which Oedipa lives is just one big ol' practical joke—her hubby's on acid, she's serenaded by the Paranoids, and everyone has a ridiculous name.

Still, Oedipa is on a sincere quest in an absurd world. She wants to find meaning, if not in her marriage then in Tristero… but the only sensation she is left with is that meaning will always be just beyond her reach. And that's, um, the same sensation that we readers have. Thanks, Pynchon.

The Scholar

In her role of detective, Oedipa is also forced to function as a literary scholar (which, as we at Shmoop know, is pretty much the best profession in the world). The mystery of the Tristero is weirdly wrapped up with a seventeenth-century play by Richard Wharfinger called The Courier's Tragedy. In this play, Oedipa first learns the word "Tristero," and her attempts to decipher the text lead her into what she takes to be a grand Tristero conspiracy.

Shmoop PSA: This is a very real symptom of literary scholarship: you start seeing meaning everywhere.

Late in the play, Oedipa feels: "a gentle chill, an ambiguity, begins to creep in among the words" (3.125). By listening closely, she can tell that the audience at the time of The Courier's Tragedy knew what the writer was referring to, but that the meaning has since been lost: "It is all a big in-joke" (3.125). Basically, Oedipa needs to check out the Shmoop'ed up version of The Courier's Tragedy. She's confused.

Oedipa's ears prick up at the end of the fourth act, when the main character, Gennaro, utters the word "Tristero." By this point, "Tristero" is a loaded word.

Because there was no Shmoop available for a fictional character watching a fictional play back in the mid-1960's, poor Oedipa needs to go backstage to talk to the director Randolph Driblette to understand all of the literary allusions. She wants to know not only about Tristero, but about an odd illusion to buried bones in the play that seems to echo the story she was told by Manny Di Presso at Fangoso Lagoons.

Driblette tells her, "Don't drag me into your scholarly disputes" (3.163). After some nagging, dude gives Oedipa a piece of advice about interpreting primary texts:

"You could waste your life that way and never touch the truth. Wharfinger supplied words and a yarn. I gave them life. That's it." (3.170)

At this point Oedipa, the reader of The Crying of Lot 49, and all of us at Shmoop are wondering, open-mouthed in horror, if Driblette is also speaking to them: That's it? Don't read too much into literature? The horror! Basically, through Oedipa, crafty ol' Pynchon is trying to communicate something to the reader about the book they're reading. The Crying of Lot 49 is constructed to hint at untold depths of meaning, but at the same time it's kinda-sorta just a practical joke. And it's a practical joke aimed right at the hearts of literary scholars like all of us at Shmoop. Womp womp.

No matter how much time one spends with the text, Pynchon is basically saying, there will not be absolute answers. Instead of looking for one distinct meaning, we should all be happy to get lost in the questions that arise when we read books. Getting confused is kind of the end goal.

This actually makes us beam like little kids breaking open a piñata. More questions to ponder? More literary allusions to struggle over? Bring it on!

The Name Game

Oedipa is a female version of "Oedipus," the infamous King of Thebes—you know: the dude who got it on with his mommy.

Recap: when Oedipus was a boy, there was a prophecy that he would kill his father and marry his mother. His father, Laius, banishes him to Corinth to avoid the prophecy. But Oedipus eventually learns that he is living with an adopted family. On his way home, he (unknowingly) encounters his father on the road and offs him.

As Oedipus continues on his way to Thebes, he comes across a Sphinx that challenges him to answer a riddle. If he answers correctly, then he can go. Otherwise, the Sphinx will eat him. Oedipus figures out the riddle, and the Sphinx kills itself in despair. The people of Thebes are so grateful that they marry Oedipus to the widowed queen, Jocasta (his mother). Oedipus does not realize what has happened until later, but, once he does, he gouges his eyes out.

In Lot 49, Oedipa, like our poor blind friend Oedipus, feels trapped in a myth that she does not understand. She is left solving riddles to no end (like those weird Sphinx riddles) but she doesn't have any kind of a-ha! moment or revelation.

The key connection between Oedipa and Oedipus is likely that they are both the subjects of a plot. We don't mean this in the boring technical sense, but in the sense that they are subjected to a conspiracy-style plot, that the plot is more powerful than their characters and overwhelms them.

You can read a ton into Oedipa's name. Her last name, "Maas," may refer to the Spanish for "more" or to the scientific concept of "mass," which will determine an object's acceleration when faced with an applied force. The second meaning in particular ties Oedipa into the main scientific metaphor of the novel: entropy. Whether or not Oedipa will submit to the forces of chaos is determined by her "Maas."

But remember Pynchon's warning not to read too much into this novel (and we love to read into basically everything). Oedipa, like Mike "Fallopian," is an impossible name. It hints at enormous symbolic meaning and invites the reader to all sorts of interpretations, but it also functions as a joke: a red herring for someone trying to come up with a meaningful interpretation of the novel.